Olver left indelible mark: Colleagues, constituents, friends remember longtime politician, who died Thursday at 86

  • John Olver, who served in Congress for 22 years as part of more than 40 years in state and national politics, died Thursday, Feb. 23, at 86. This 2012 photo was taken in his Washington office just weeks before his retirement. “I’ve done a lot of small significant things and a few pretty major things,” he told the Gazette at the time. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Olver was recalled Friday for his quiet effectiveness in championing reproductive rights, public transportation, conservation and much more. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • John Olver, center, receives an honorary doctor of public service degree from the University of Massachusetts in 2016. Olver, who served as U.S. congressman for 22 years as part of more than 40 years in state and national politics, died Thursday. He was 86. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • John Olver, left, talks with U.S. Reps. Jim McGovern and Richie Neal in 2012. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writers
Thursday, March 02, 2023

AMHERST — John Olver of Amherst, who served as a U.S. congressman for 22 years and was on the local and national political stage for more than 40 years, died last Thursday, leaving a legacy of progressive advocacy and achievements that continues to benefit the region, those who knew him say.

“His fingerprints are all over western Massachusetts,” former state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg said of his Democratic predecessor in the state Legislature. “He created so many major public policies and helped communities with economic development and municipal projects.”

While Olver, who was 86, may be best known today for the numerous intermodal projects he brought to the region, including the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield, and his focus on sustainability, as illustrated in the John W. Olver Design Building at University of Massachusetts campus, his promotion of an equitable society and a government that would do good for people were also his hallmarks.

“John was well ahead of his time in social and economic justice, focusing on all kinds of things to help those left behind,” Rosenberg said. “He was one of the earliest voices in support of reproductive rights and honoring and respecting the diversity of society.”

Olver influenced the careers of many of the region’s current politicians, including former Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz.

“John Olver’s focused, principled and determined work to improve the lives of the people and communities he served, both on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill, left an indelible mark on western and central Massachusetts,” said Narkewicz, who served as a district aide for Olver and, like other former staffers, were taught by Olver how to be effective leaders and policymakers.

State Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Deerfield, said when she thinks of Olver she thinks of transportation and the huge maps he would have with him “that would take up the entire vehicle.”

“He had to know every detail of every project that our office was involved in,” said Blais, who worked in Olver’s office on economic development projects.

Linda Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Council of Governments, collaborated with Olver for more than 15 years on projects such as laying fiber optic cables along Route 2 and the food processing center at the Franklin County Community Development Corp.

“He was a great man. His legacy is seen and felt all over Franklin County every day,” Dunlavy said.

A modest approach

But Olver was also modest in his approach, rarely being in the limelight, but knowing exactly how to approach politics and the ways he could impact communities economically and beyond.

“He was happy to be quiet in the background doing the work that needed to be done, bringing projects and money home for his district, all without a lot of fanfare,” said retired state Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst.

Olver was born on a farm in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, earned a degree in chemistry from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and then a doctorate in chemistry from MIT, arriving in Amherst in 1962 with wife, Rose Olver. Both began their careers teaching, he at UMass as a chemistry professor, and she at Amherst College.

Rose Olver was also the first female tenure-track professor at Amherst College and taught psychology for 50 years, helping to develop the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Rose Olver’s prominence on campus is marked by a portrait that hangs alongside college presidents and other college dignitaries at Johnson Chapel.

Unlike his late wife, John Olver cut short his academic career, first by running and winning a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1968.

Peter Lillya, a longtime friend who taught chemistry at UMass, said he and Olver immediately became best friends, but understood that Olver’s interests extended beyond science.

“Our two families were close and enjoyed many good times together,” Lillya said, including at Olver’s home in South Amherst and on trips to the Caribbean.

The two men often went on backpack rock climbing expeditions, including to the Adirondacks and some of the peaks in New Hampshire and Maine. Olver also enjoyed climbing those 4,000-foot peaks by himself.

Olver left the state House to become a state senator from 1973 to 1991, where he oversaw a committee that closed the state hospitals and schools for the mentally ill, and pushed for the adoption of the bottle bill and for the formation of regional transportation agencies, like the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority.

As a legislator, Olver also created the Agricultural Preservation Restriction program that has saved thousands of acres of farmland from being developed, and in retirement continued to promote the protection of open space and natural resources through regional land trusts, Rosenberg said.

“It’s also fair to call him the grandfather of the bike path system in western Massachusetts,” Rosenberg said.

Nancy Eddy, who served on Amherst’s Select Board starting in 1970 at Olver’s encouragement, said she was distressed to learn of his death. “He worked hard for the constituents of this Valley, always putting the needs of less advantaged people at the forefront,” Eddy said. “We owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”

“Even as I’d see him less frequently out and about, always the gentle giant in bearing, and thanking him for the progressive agendas he toiled hard, humbly and so quietly for during his long service,” said Adrienne Terrizzi, a longtime Amherst resident.

National politics

Olver’s move to national politics began when he won a special election to be the 1st Congressional District representative following the death of Silvio Conte.

While serving in Washington, Olver was often in the minority. Even with the GOP in charge, Olver continued to pursue transportation as one of his key initiatives, guiding money to projects in the region, including community health centers, the 104th National Air Guard at Westfield and Westover Air Reserve Base, the regional transportation authorities, and the regional network of bike trails.

When Democrats got back in the majority under President Barack Obama, Olver served as a lead member of the Appropriations subcommittee that directed stimulus money to transportation projects, oversaw health care and financial reforms, and got $73 million for the Knowledge Corridor rail project and affordable housing projects near population centers.

Olver left office as the senior member of the Appropriations Committee and an influential voice on transportation policy across the country.

“He ensured federal dollars made it to Mass. and western Mass.,” said Keith Barnicle, who served as a caseworker for Olver and, like Narkewicz, grew in the role and became an expert in immigration, Social Security and veterans’ issues.

Barnicle said one of his favorite memories of Olver was when the two of them came to Greenfield for a meeting with the mayor. Before their meeting, they stopped at Brad’s Place for BLTs. While they were leaving, they found out that another customer had paid their bill to thank Olver.

“I thought it was a real testament to him as a member of Congress. He was so well-loved in that way,” Barnicle said.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern took over many of the communities Olver represented in the district, while others are now represented by U.S. Rep. Richard Neal.

“A humble public servant with the heart of an activist, John was truly a champion for the people of Western and Central Massachusetts,” McGovern said. “His quiet demeanor and wry sense of humor concealed a razor-sharp understanding of the issues facing the American people and a deep faith in our ability to solve them together.”

Neal said Olver’s “approach to policymaking was a good lesson for those in public life. He lacked any malice and had the purest of intentions, focusing solely on delivering for the people he felt privileged to represent.”

Remaining in Amherst, and losing his wife to cancer in 2014, Olver stayed active in local politics, endorsing the charter change that created a Town Council form of government and participating in events, such as the 2018 groundbreaking for the North Square at the Mill District project.

Unlike politicians who are gregarious, Olver often carried a serious demeanor. “He didn’t suffer fools gladly,” Story said. “In fact, he didn’t suffer fools at all.”

This, though, helped him to be a trusted politician, she said, observing that lobbyists understood he was incorruptible.

Weeks before his retirement in January 2013, Olver spoke to the Gazette from his office in Washington, maintaining the same posture in his comments.

“I’ve done a lot of small significant things and a few pretty major things,” Olver said. “My approach was to try to help as many community organizations achieve their goals, because most of them had good goals, good inputs and good support to achieve those goals.”

Narkewicz said he extends condolences to Olver’s family and is joining those mourning his death, but also “celebrating an incredible legacy of public service that will long endure.”

“He has a huge, huge policy, program and project legacy,” Rosenberg said. “This is a huge loss, but he was a great gift.”